Robert 'Roy' J. van de Hoek
December 21, 2000 and July 8, 2001 and August 8, 2001
Edward F. Ricketts is an important Western writer who holds the dubious honor of being known more through what has been written about him than through what he has himself written. This honor is all the more spurious because he has achieved his greatest notoriety as the prototype for a character in fiction who is, at best, loosely based on the original. Ed Ricketts is the Doc of John Seinbeck's Cannery Rowand Sweet Thursday. This tenderly human marine biologist owns and operates the Western Biological Laboratory on the Monterey waterfront and is the adviser and protector of the whores, bums, and blots-on-the-town, the delightful denizens of Cannery Row.
The truth is that Ed Ricketts was a man of many talents and one of the truly fine minds of our time. He was a highly accomplished marine biologist who authored the most complete and useful guide to the marine invertebrates of the central Pacific Coast ever written. He was a naturalist who studied the seashore with understanding and affection; he never tired of watching the changing of the tide and the breaking and retiring waves which he felt were so much like the processes of life. He was an ecologist long before the study of interrelationships, of mutuality of life forms, became a national pastime. As distinguished from the emotional preservationists from whom we have heard so much during the past decade, he was a scientific conservationist who believed that we must use our resources intelligently enough to protect species from loss, injury, decay, and waste.
As a scientist, ecologist, and conservationist in search of what he called "the toto-picture," he believed that the scientist's work is always tentative, a stone in the developing cathedral. He knew that knowledge is built communally and he worked to build upon the work of his predecessors by setting new words to old music. He did not study "things" in and for themselves, but for the structure of relations. He believed that the most orthodox specialistic scientific visions are fragmentary, divisive, and reductionist, and he dismissed as useless the students of minutiae, those picklers of the field who see the pieces of life without its principle. Like Alexander Pope two centuries earlier, Ricketts viewed with disdain those who
Ed Ricketts was also a philosopher, a student of music and literature, and an essayist. In a series of important but as yet unpublished works, Ricketts posits what he calls "a unified hypothesis.".....
Ricketts anticipated that the critics would suggest the narrative section was written entirely by Steinbeck. Even before the publication of Sea of Cortez, he told biologist Joel W. Hedgpeth that:
Clearly, Steinbeck shaped and patterned the narrative; he modeled Rickett's fragmenteed notes into a coherent log of the trip. And Ricketts was the driving force behind the phyletic catalog. Indeed, it was only because he was so well versed in the ecology of the Pacfic littoral that he was able to identify certain specimens and select appropriate experts in the field to identify those with which he was unfamiliar. Nevertheless, the book is the work and product of the thinking of two men - a novelist and a marine biologist. "The structure is a collaboration," said Ricketts in a notebook entry, "but mostly shaped by John. The book is the result." It is, indeed, the very fact of collaboration that makes Sea of Cortez unique. For it is at once a one book and many books. It is a record of the ecology of the region and a work of travel literature, as well as a treatise on philosophy, on ethics - unified by the minds of the authors.
The phyletic catalog is a readable and comprehensive account of the Gulf's marine life and reflects a decision by Ricketts and Steinbeck to reverse the usual procedure followed by most marine expeditions, in which materials are normally taken indiscriminately by dredging, seining, and tow-nettingn, in deep water and on the surface, and in which special attention is paid to rare or unknown forms. Instead, as Ricketts notes, "The commoner the animal, the more attention we devoted to it, since it more than the total of all rare forms, was important in the biological economy. Instead of operating on any hit or miss plan, we had merely the one coordinated objective: to become as familiar as we might, in our limited time, with the shore biology of the region" (EFR/JS, 8/22/41).
Sea of Cortez also contains fascinating accounts of the Indians who live in the remote fishing fishing villages along the shore of the Gulf of California. Extensive observation in his own trip journal of the simple lifestyles of these Indians leads Ricketts to reflect that what we in the United States call "progress" may lead to our eventual extinction, while the Indian of the Gulf sit in their dugout canoes and remember a "great and godlike race [of Northamericanos] who flew away in four-motored bombers to accompaniment of exploding bombs, the voice of God calling them home" (Log, p.89). Based upon their ecological perspective on life, in which all living beings (including man) are wholly and ineluctably embedded in the fiber of natural processes, they refuse to view nature as a commodity to be exploited. With their perspective in mind, Ricketts is critical of our propensity to live outside ourselves - to exist in external things - "property, houses, money, concepts of power" (Log, p.87). He believes that an artifact-civilization atrophies the human will. He embraces Herbert Muller's belief that we do indeed have the highest standard of low living in the history of man; and he is critical of a technology which has taught us to become gods before we have learned to be men.
Serious discussions of birth and death, navigation, history, and scientific method also fill the Log. There is, too, some caustic commentary on those specialists whom Ricketts and Steinbeck call "dry balls," who create "out of their own crusted minds" a world "wrinkled with formaldehyde." They do not condemn the specialist as such. Indeed, the fact that they sent unusual specimens to various experts for identification and classification indicates their respect for highly trained disciplinary scientists. But they insist that those specialists be aware of the limits of specialization, that they not view all of life in reductionist terms. Ricketts writes about the natural world asa its lover and, much like Swift in his attack on the academy at Lagado, he eschews the cultivation of a science divorced from human life. He opposed pedantry in science, in all fields of study for that matter, and reserved his admiration for the dignity of an expansive, comprehensive culture.
At the philosophical center of the Log is Ricketts' ecological and holistic world view, which reflects his attempt to build a "toto-picture." Generally, the explanations of this "toto-picture" in the Log are scientific and are based, at leasat in part, on the ideas of W. C. Allee. At other times, however, Ricketts follows the suggestion he made in Between Pacific Tides that studies of animal ecology can "lead us to the borderline of the metaphysical" (p.60). For in the Log he reaches for what must be called an extraphysical interpretation of the cosmic whole in which everything in the creation is related and has its proper place. Perhaps the best passages in the Log are those in which Ricketts and Steinbeck celebrate their holistic schema in terms more mystical and intuitive than scientific:
Ricketts' quest to understand the "toto-picture" was for him a highly personal search in which he adopted what, in an essay of the same name, he called the nonteleological method of thinking. This essay was written and rewritten a number of times during the 1930s, and was finally published in the Log. Indeed, it is that "large section lifted verbatim from other unpublished work" mentioned in the Ricketts-Steinbeck memorandum about the authorship of Sea of Cortez.
Nonteleological or "is" thinking is that method of perceiving life which permits one to see things both in terms of relationships and as they themselves really are. "The whole picture is portrayed by is," Ricketts writes in the essay on nonteleological thinking, "the deepest word of deep ultimate reality, not shallow or partial as reasons are, but deeper and participating, possibly encompassing the Oriental concept of being" (Log, pp.150-151). Ricketts defines teleology as a stubborn preoccupation with "changes and cures" by men who "in their sometimes intolerant refusal to face facts as they are," substitute "a fierce but ineffectual attempt to change conditions which are assumed to be undesirable, in place of the understanding-acceptance which would pave the way for a more sensible attempt at any change which might still be indicated" (Log, pp.134-135). In other words, he insists that teleological thinking is associated only with the evaluation of causes and effects and their relative purposefulness-with an end pattern of what "could be" or "should be."
As a scientist who studied what he called "the good kind sane little animals" of the littoral with affection, he relished a relativisitic, anti-absolutist view of science, and he engaged in an analysis of marine systems long before systematics was recognized as the base on which the rest of biology build (see Buzati-Traverson, Perspectives in Marine Biology,1960). As a social theorist who believed that "light may well be shed on the social problems of Homo sapiens by a consideration of the soical adaptations achieved on humbler group levels" (Guggenheim Grant application), Ricketts applied knowledge gleaned from his scientific pursuits towards a meaningful and very human view of indivisible man. In his own tempo and with his own voice, Ed Ricketts fashioned a vision of wholeness and union which was important in his time and which becomes increasingly meaningful as we confront the complexities of the post-modern age.